Saturday, June 18, 2005

Visual Bias

Here is a curious passage in Robert Logan's The Alphabet Effect, 1987, p. 121 or here, chapter 9, p. 40. It might be worth reading the context.

"The alphabet by separating the sound, meaning, and appearance of a word separated the eye from the rest of the senses, especially the ear. Preliterate man is multisensual whereas alphabetic man is highly visual. "Between Homer and Plato, the method of storage began to alter, as the information became alphabetized, and correspondingly the eye supplanted the ear as the chief organ for this purpose" (Havelock 1963).

The Greeks created visual space, the geometric space treated in Euclid's elements. With alphabetic literacy visual metaphors for knowledge crept into usage in the Greek language. We use similar metaphors in English as the following examples illustrate. Our word idea derives from the Greek word eidos, "the appearance of a thing". Theory derives from the Greek word theorein, "to view" (the word theater has the same root). The term speculate derives from the Latin specere, "to look".

Logan quotes Havelock who associates the alphabetization of information to the eye supplanting in the ear. I am not quite sure what he means by the alphabetization of information, since encyclopedias were not alphabetized until the 1700's and the alphabetization of glossaries seemed to relate directly to the sound of the word, not its appearance. See this post.

However, he may simply mean 'as information was written in an alphabet' the eye supplanted the ear. Logan expands on this by saying, "With alphabetic literacy visual metaphors for knowledge crept into usage in the Greek language."

I am enquiring today whether alphabetic societies are unique in having visual metaphors for knowledge. If Chinese has visual metaphors for knowledge then what? Maybe this is a universal pattern related not to alphabetic literacy but to any kind of literacy. Maybe it is not related to literacy at all. However, I thought I could make a minor attempt to look at both Greek and Chinese and someone might build on this attempt and give me the real goods.

First, theorein - 'to view' is from θεωρέω - 'look at, view, behold, observe'; and theory θεωρία is 'contemplation and reflection' also 'sight or spectacle', Liddell & Scott, 1871.

Then idea from είδος - the 'appearance of a thing' also 'form, shape or figure' is derived from είδω 'know.' or 'see.' It is also related derivationally to οράω - 'see'.

That's what I find for Greek - now how about Chinese?

识 见 or 見識 jian shi - knowledge from 见 or 見 jian - see

表 象 biao xiang - idea from 象 xiang - shape, form, appearance

I suppose that Logan could argue that the morpheme for the spoken word also occurs in the Chinese word for knowledge. However, λογος - logos or -logy is a familiar morpheme for knowledge in English and it somes from λεγω - to communicate by word of mouth.

So far, the visual bias seems at least as true for Chinese as it is for Greek and Greek-derived languages. If "the eye supplanted the ear", then this was as true for Chinese as it was for Greek, it was a response to literacy, not just alphabetic literacy.

This is just one of the many times Logan confuses his contrast of alphabetic and non-alphabetic with literate and preliterate.


Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

I forgot to mention the Chinese word for theory in the post above.
論 - 'theory' comes from 'discuss' or 'talk about'. This sounds like the word dialogue. Does this support Logan's thesis or is there actually a mixture of visual and verbal metaphor for knowledge, theory and idea in both Greek and Chinese?

7:49 PM  
Blogger Jimmy Ho said...

(A minor point: both jianshi 见识 and shijian 识见 are acceptable in Chinese, though the former is probably more frequent for that meaning.
Also, translating lun 论 as "theory" might be misleading and is probably influenced by the modern loan word lilun 理论, which comes from Japanese riron. For some more perspective, another word used to indicate a particular theory or idea is shuo 说 "to speak", "speech", etc.)

5:02 PM  
Blogger Jimmy Ho said...

As in diyuan shuo 地圆说 (round Earth theory). The corresponding dissyllabic word is xueshuo 学说.

As far as Greek-Chinese analogies go, I am partial to dao 道 / méthodos.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, I was so intent on choosing the right characters that I didn't see how I got them turned around. I also got 'lilun' from Darwin's theory or some such expression.

I saw 'shuo' which seems not unlike how English uses -logy. We aren't aware now that it means to speak but it did once.

μεθοδος and dao is a great analogy.

Οδος is even better. According to Lidell and Scott it means the way or the path, a way of thinking or a mode of belief. i.e. the Christian way. I think that we could prove to Logan that both ancient Greeks and Chinese were Christians.:-)
Here is an interesting but obscure discussion of how the Methodists came to get their name. Even Wesley couldn't figure that out.


8:36 PM  
Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

PS After what you said about European advertising mixing scripts I have started noticing it. On Brio cola the word Chinotti was spelled chinoπi. Obviously I don't get over to Europe very often.


10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually chinoπo. Suz

8:01 PM  
Blogger Jimmy Ho said...

This is very frustrating: I would like so much to discuss further here and on your latest post (this is all fascinating stuff; and thank you for the reference, by the way), but work and thesis are calling me and I cannot let them alone.
For now: yes, things like "chinoπo" are what I am talking about. For another illustration of that, I suggest the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris' website. The design reproduces the actual orientation signs inside the Cité. I see this live pretty often; needless to say, I still can't get used to it. I may be wrong, but I tend to think that this kind of lettering actually banks on the public's ignorance. When you know that 大 (da, ô, etc.) means "large, big", you really have to twist your mind to accept reading it as an A.

(Sorry in advance for any weirdness in my English; obviously, I am not a native speaker.)

4:00 AM  
Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

That Paris website looks like overkill. I think this kind of stuff (οορς) should be used with restraint. However, it represents a form of humour that can be used on the internet, like a wink. ;) Actually when I went back to read οορς I read 'ours' a bear in my head, and not oops. However, no need to take it too seriously. Hope you like my next post. Now back to work!


9:08 PM  
Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

Actually I loved that website you sent and went back to it for a screenshot. Some day when I figure out how to post images I will feature it. Thanks.


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9:07 PM  

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